Yes, I know I’ve been writing a lot about the iPad as of late. Just bear with me here.
Since the announcement of the iPad, the latest in a long line of portable gadgets from Apple, I’ve been thinking long and hard about this thing and trying to find a place for it in my day to day life. While I haven’t exactly caught the iPad fever here, I’ve warmed up a bit to the concept of the device. It’s the sort of device that seems to have a certain niche appeal and will end up polarizing the market. One trip to one of the many gadget blogs and websites out there will show you that it has already done an excellent job of doing just that. In thinking of the iPad, I was drawn to another gadget, a gadget that saw its beginnings in 2007 with the launch of ASUS’s now famous Eee PC.
With the launch of that tiny laptop designed for browsing the net on the go, the netbook was born, and created a new segment of the PC market which has exploded since and made significant gains in terms of marketshare and popularity. These little portable laptops, most of which are powered by Intel’s underpowered (for the purpose of delivering long battery life) but enduring Atom processor, have become a staple among consumers looking for a small device that’s capable of checking email, playing YouTube clips, updating Facebook profiles and writing MS Word documents and be thrown easily into a backpack or purse at a moment’s notice. While Apple has yet to produce a product that could be classified as a netbook, they’ve certainly taken notice. In fact, Steve Jobs aimed a shot at netbooks in his presentation prior to the unveiling of the iPad, calling them slow, clunky and bogged down by “PC” software (an obvious jab at Windows). After hearing this, I began to think, “Are netbooks truly inferior to whatever Apple has cooked up?” Well, after seeing what exactly Apple has created here, I don’t think so.
While it’s quite obvious that netbooks have their limitations, the iPad has quite a few limitations of its own. Quite frankly, I’d even go as far as to say that the iPad has more limitations than the average netbook and I’m going to run down a list of them as I continue on.
First off, the biggest limitation facing the iPad is the fact that it’s a closed platform. Apple is the gatekeeper and they aren’t known for being very lenient in their approval processes. There have already been many horror stories about Apple’s somewhat arbitrary application approval processes in relation to the app store on the iPhone and iPod Touch and I don’t have much reason to believe that they will be loosening the choke chain when it comes to the iPad. Therefore, you will always be under Apple’s thumb when it comes to what applications you can run on the device. Netbooks, however, don’t have this problem. There is no “App Store” like repository for applications that can be run on netbooks and no single corporate entity has power over what you can and cannot develop, release and run on your netbook. While closed platforms are acceptable on mobile phones, PDAs, game consoles and the like, tablet PCs, laptops and netbooks have always been open so suddenly having such a limitation on what I can run on a tablet-sized device is not a very appealing prospect.
Second, the iPad lacks multitasking. Again, on a mobile phone, this may be acceptable (but even then that’s pushing it these days), but not on a tablet-sized device. On a netbook, I can listen to music either in iTunes/Foobar 2k or streaming from last.fm, while editing a document in MS Word, chatting with friends in AIM and doing some light web browsing. On the iPad, I’ll be able to listen to my music collection that’s stored locally on the device while in many of the applications but as far as multitasking goes, that’s about it. Multitasking is something I do every day on my PC and it’s become something I’ve grown accustomed to. In fact, at one point while I was writing this in MS Word, my IRC client and Firefox were open and running and that’s a pretty light load for me. While it may seem like a small issue to some people and a non-issue to others, this is a particularly big factor in making my decision.
I’m not even going to bring up the price difference, which is one of the largest factors in deciding whether or not this is a better value than a netbook.
After all the times these arguments have been brought up in relation to the iPad, it may sound like I’m beating a dead horse. The lack of multitasking, the high price and the closed platform are perhaps the biggest arguments against the purchase of an iPad and these are things that will play against it in the marketplace. For college students like myself who need something portable enough to carry to and from school on a daily basis and take notes on during lectures, a netbook is a great portable companion. An iPad on the other hand? I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong, the iPad has a great deal of potential and there are some advantages that it has over netbooks such as its multitouch display (for ease of use matters) and its inability to multitask allows for snappier performance (and netbooks have never been known for their speed). It seems to me that the area in which the iPad will shine brightest is as a content delivery system and that’s what Apple seems to be pushing for with their revamped storefronts for iTunes, the App Store and the new iBookstore. The iPad will undoubtedly serve as a multimedia portable that allows people to consume the internet and their favorite multimedia while away from their laptop and in that way, it has an advantage over a netbook purely because of its snappier performance and easier to use interface.
Based on the shortcomings the iPad has in relation to the average netbook, I don’t see how I could possibly justify the purchase of an iPad over a netbook for portable use. The closed app ecosystem is something I can’t personally get behind in such a device when a netbook will allow me to install and run any applications I choose (of course, after taking into account the limitations of the platform). When you add in the inability to multitask and the high price, the argument against purchasing an iPad gets that much stronger. While the iPad certainly has its advantages in terms of multimedia content delivery, ease of use and speed but when I weigh these advantages against what I feel I need in a portable device to be used in a collegiate setting, they’re rendered moot because I won’t be making use of them in such a setting. I can definitely see how the iPad can fit into the lives of many people (particularly those who love having the latest tech toys) and even college students like myself but for me, the choice is clear.